Originally designed for studying astrophysics, a fusion reactor of the MIT from the 1970s, called “Alcator”, could be the base of another one to be installed in Russia and managed by Bruno Coppi. The new reactor is called Ignitor and, as far as the plans sound, it is ready to surpass ITER as both performance and time to go into production.
The fusion reaction has been the number one dream of every energy scientist: two isotopes of hydrogen, called deuterium and tritium are forced together through a combination of heat and pressure, and when their natural electrostatic repulsion is overcame, their nuclei fuse, releasing huge amounts of energy.
The fusion reaction has to happen in a plasma confinement, because it releases temperatures that none of the currently known physical materials would withstand. The Ignitor would have the main donut-shaped chamber of 1.3 meters across, and have an even stronger magnetic field than the Alcator.
On the other hand, ITER, an immense project started by several countries, and planned to be built in France, has had some setbacks and is only expected to achieve its ignition goals several decades from now (meaning they may not have a clue on how to get it working properly).
Coppi plans to work with the Italian ministry of research and Evgeny Velikhov, president of the Kurchatov Institute in Moscow, to finalize the distribution of tasks for the machine, the core of which is to be built in Italy and then installed in Troitsk, near Moscow, on the site of that institute’s present Triniti reactor. Velikhov, as it happens, is also the chair of the ITER council. Coppi says of these two different programs, “there’s no competition, we are complementary.”
Quoting the late MIT physicist and Institute Professor Bruno Rossi, Coppi says, “whenever you do experiments in an unknown regime, you will find something new.” The new machine’s findings, he suggests, “will have a strong impact on astrophysics.”
Well, ignition may happen in a few years, maybe a decade, but the fact that an MIT-based approach of nuclear fusion is to be built in Italy and mounted near Moscow would have surprised us twenty years ago, and still surprises me now. More, the idea of researching in an area with so many intricate questions may bring many answers to scientists as to what energy is and where is it coming from.